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Virtual fitting rooms changing the clothes shopping experience

High-tech sizing machines scan customers and offer a list of recommended clothing, eliminating returns and providing manufacturers with real-world data.

July 13, 2012|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times
  • Sandra Garcia, left, the station manager at the Me-Ality sizing machine in the Westfield Topanga mall, helps Quincy Thomas, 19, get into position before the machine scans him.
Sandra Garcia, left, the station manager at the Me-Ality sizing machine… (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times )

At the Westfield Culver City mall, jeans shopper Stephanie Heredia stepped into a booth resembling an airport body scanner. In less than 20 seconds, she walked away with a printout that recommended a dozen denim styles to fit her hourglass-shaped frame.

Paper in hand, she headed to JCPenney to try on a pair of size 12 boot cut Levi's. The fit was perfect. And the best part was no shimmying in and out of a stack of styles and sizes to get it.

"Whenever I go shopping for jeans, I have a heck of a time," said Heredia, 50, a jewelry sales manager from Culver City. "This is something new, more exciting. My son even did it and he was impressed."

New technology is making it easier than ever to find clothes that fit and flatter. Size-matching machines are springing up in shopping centers around the country, including seven malls in Southern California. Free to shoppers, the service means less dressing room drama for customers like Heredia — and the promise of bigger profits for the industry.

Clothing makers, armed with body data collected from real shoppers, could sew better-fitting garments and more accurately forecast what sizes to stock. Retailers would save on labor needed to fold and rehang rejected garments. Some are already seeing its potential as a marketing tool.

Denim purchases at Bloomingdale's Century City store shot up in March during the test of a body scanner aimed at helping shoppers find the right pair of jeans, company spokeswoman Marissa Vitagliano said.

Sizing machines are "a great example of using technology to drive sales," she said. "It's certainly the wave of the future and we want to be part of that."

The technology could also help eliminate one of the biggest drawbacks to Internet shopping: returns. More than 20% of apparel ordered online gets sent back. Sizing software being developed for home motion-sensing devices like the popular Microsoft Kinect will soon allow consumers to scan themselves in their living rooms before clicking "purchase" on their computer screens.

"It's disruptive technology that could break open the whole e-commerce apparel space," said Raj Sareen, chief executive and founder of Styku. The Los Angeles startup has developed a program that measures users' dimensions and creates personalized on-screen avatars to digitally "try on" clothes. Using specifications provided by clothing manufacturers, the program can figure out whether that dress will fit like a tent or a tourniquet before a shopper ever takes it off the rack.

Sareen said the company plans to sell the tool directly to consumers for home use by the end of the year, but has not yet set a price. It is also in talks with major retailers to install the software inside store fitting rooms.

Technology companies say virtual fitting rooms and sizing machines turn the shopping experience into a science. In a typical setup, shoppers step fully clothed into a sizing machine and stand still with their arms outstretched. Thousands of points on the body are then measured and mapped — usually by a motion-sensing device or by a vertical wand containing small antennas — and used to determine a person's unique shape. A shopper is then matched with specific styles of clothing brands to fit his or her body type based on sizing information gathered from retailers' actual inventory.

In addition to Styku, players include London-based Bodymetrics, which makes store body-mapping booths, and the Calabasas firm FaceCake Marketing Technologies, which has developed a 3-D dressing room called Swivel that allows shoppers to virtually model clothes on a computer monitor or television screen.

Canadian firm Unique Solutions Design operates size-matching stations in 65 shopping malls across the U.S. that scan about 200,000 shoppers a month, according to company Chief Executive Tanya Shaw. Dubbed Me-Ality, the machines cost roughly $60,000 to $100,000 each to manufacture and install, said Shaw, who projects that 200 of the company's machines will be installed nationwide by the end of the year.

In Southern California, Me-Ality scanners can be found in shopping centers in Arcadia, Canoga Park, Culver City, Thousand Oaks, West Covina, Santa Ana and Valencia. Mall officials see the machines as a way to differentiate their centers and draw more traffic.

"It's great because it streamlines the shopping process and allows people to shop more efficiently and faster, and ultimately visit more stores," said Sarah Richardson, director of marketing at Westfield Culver City. "Having that kind of tool takes the guesswork out of shopping."

After the free scan, consumers are matched with their correct sizes in brands including Eddie Bauer, American Eagle Outfitters, Talbots and True Religion. They are given specific styles to buy and are provided with the price of each item.

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